A gay rabbi responds to Atlanta Pride overlapping with Yom Kippur

‘Conflicting identities’ and a lesson in forgiveness

Editor’s note: Rabbi Joshua Lesser is leader of Congregation Bet Haverim, an Atlanta synagogue founded by lesbians and gay men. This week, the Atlanta Pride Committee announced that the 2011 festival will be held Oct. 8-9. The festival conflicts with the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown on Oct. 7 and ends at sunset on Oct. 8. For more on this issue, please click here.

I once asked a reluctant professor for a make-up Calculus test which had been scheduled on Yom Kippur. Surprised by his resistance, I uttered in exasperation, “You wouldn’t have scheduled a test on Christmas.” Defensively he replied, “Of course not, school is not in session.”

It is a privilege to have one’s heritage, gender, race, class, faith or sexual orientation represented as normative in the mainstream culture. While there is richness in distinction from the norm, it often alienates and creates conflict between a person and her community and conflict within himself.

As American Queer Jews, we live with at least three distinct identities that each have a cultural aspect to them which frequently collide and rarely coalesce. Our Pride celebration is one of the places where one hopes to celebrate the richness of all of one’s identities. For many Jews, the scheduling of Pride on Yom Kippur creates a conflict of identities and painfully highlights our difference. It raises the question that many people feel: Am I a valued and a legitimate member of the LGBTQ community?

When I heard the rumor that Pride weekend had been scheduled and it overlapped with Yom Kippur, I said to those around me, “Well, I guess that’s going to change.” I prepared myself to wade through the defensiveness. I prepared myself to listen to the privileged positions. I prepared myself to hear the benign ignorance. Most of all, I prepared to make a much better argument this time than to my college professor.

Two things happened. First, I recognized that my initial response lacked curiosity. It lacked humility by making assumptions of how the decision was made and how it would be justified. In reflection, I felt I needed to be more open. Could I have forgotten to a check a calendar for an event? Yes. Do I make mistakes? Yes. Are there blind spots where I have privilege and ignorance? Yes.

This did not change my need to communicate the significance of this oversight, but it modulated my tone. I remembered the folks at Pride are my community too. I had to think about how I wanted to engage my communities when they are in conflict. The Jewish value of dan caf z’chut, judge with favorable merit, reminded me to begin the conversation giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Secondly, [Pride Executive Director] James Sheffield and [Pride Board Chair] Cain Williamson’s response to me was earnest, contrite and forthcoming. They owned their mistake and expressed regret and embarrassment. Even with modifications, they knew this was not something that would easily be forgotten or undone. We met each other with concern and openness. We quickly settled on convening a larger group of LGBTQ Jews to discuss options.

At that meeting we explored the possibilities of moving the date for quite a while. As we looked at each obstacle that impeded a possible move, we began to think of how to live with this unfortunate overlap. People in the room began to work together to see how some aspect of Pride could be salvaged for the LGBTQ Jewish community. In part, it will mean elevating activities that occur during the traditional Pride month of June and to bolster the parts of Pride that do not conflict and create new opportunities.

We recognized that Yom Kippur means different things to different Jews. Some solutions that may be off-putting to some Jews will appeal to others. After making the mistake of overlooking the Jewish community, none of us wanted to worsen it by representing Jews as a monolith. Certainly Bet Haverim does not speak for all LGBTQ Jews, nor do I represent all of our members. I imagine as more people express their ideas Pride will be able to provide for the far-reaching needs of our diverse community.

For me Yom Kippur takes precedence over everything. When Yom Kippur fell on my 16th birthday, as much as I complained about it, I knew I would not have missed services, even if my parents had allowed me to get my driver’s license on that day.

While the purpose of each observance seems contrary to the other, there are ways to bring in spiritual aspects of Pride into the reflection, cleansing, and realigning of Yom Kippur. I invite the community, particularly LGBT Jews to spend Yom Kippur with us.

Though I remain disappointed, I grow clearer that the day of Yom Kippur itself instructs us how to respond to the most challenging moments in life. Yom Kippur dictates us to:

• Ask for forgiveness
• Forgive in the face of true remorse
• Cultivate humility and gratitude
• Be honest
• Seek restoration and healing
• Let compassion and mercy temper justice
• Do not give into temptation
• Aspire to be one’s best self

The hardest part of Yom Kippur is realizing that when we stand communally recounting our transgressions, we do so because each of us shares the responsibility for mistakes made. We are accountable for each other’s well being. This is true for my Jewish community and my Queer community.

We read on Yom Kippur from Chapter 58 in Isaiah, where it says that if we challenge oppression, if we ensure that people do not go hungry, if we respond to our kin in need , turn away from manipulation and evil speech, then we will be called the repairers of  brokenness and restorers of the path. This is Yom Kippur’s compass directing us how to live at our best.

I hope we can repair and restore. Learning from the very values of Yom Kippur, I realize that I can listen to the pain of my community and then work to make this oversight and overlap meaningful. Won’t you join me?